Thirty years ago, many believed this car would be the last American convertible. It wasn’t, but it did mark the end of the line for that uniquely American concept: the full-sized open car. This is the history of the 1971-1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.
FROM OPEN TO CLOSED
In the primordial days of the automobile, few cars offered much protection from the elements. A full roof, glass windows, and proper weather-sealing were expensive and heavy, making them impractical for all but the stateliest of formal cars. It was not until the 1920s that closed bodies became cheap enough to enable them to surpass the sales of their open counterparts. Even after designers became acquainted with the science of streamlining, there were many who insisted any true sports car had to be a roadster, and until well into the 1950s, high-performance cars were more likely to be open than closed.
The association of open cars with competition and fresh air lent a racy aura to even mundane convertibles. A ragtop Plymouth might be no faster than a club coupe (perhaps even less, thanks to the extra weight of structural reinforcement), but it was sporty in a way no coupe or sedan ever was. By the end of the 1920s, open cars accounted for barely 10% of the market, but nearly every make offered at least one, frequently as their highest priced image leader.
THE CADILLAC ELDORADO CONVERTIBLE
A case in point was the first Cadillac Eldorado, introduced in 1953. It was essentially a factory custom job with distinctive styling and a sobering $7,750 price tag, nearly twice that of a basic Series 62 sedan. The Eldorado was, naturally, a convertible and although the name subsequently was applied to both hardtop coupes and sedans, the Eldorado convertible remained Cadillac’s most prestigious and expensive model (barring the Series 75 limousines) through 1966.
The 1967 Eldorado was a significant departure in a number of ways. Somewhat smaller than a standard Cadillac, the new Eldo shared the E-body shell of the contemporary Buick Riviera and Oldsmobile Toronado and borrowed the Toronado’s unusual front-wheel-drive layout. One of the sharpest designs of styling chief Bill Mitchell’s reign at GM, the FWD Eldorado had crisp, knife-edged lines, but it was available only as a two-door hardtop coupe, the first time since 1953 that there had been no Eldorado convertible.
That omission was corrected when the Eldorado’s second generation bowed for 1971. Developed by Wayne Kady’s Cadillac Advanced studio, the new convertible Eldorado had a base price of $7,751, only a dollar more than the original 1953 model, but a significant $368 more than the 1971 Eldorado hardtop. The ragtop Eldorado was now Cadillac’s only open model. The cheaper Series 62 convertible had been dropped after 1963; the Calais, which replaced the Series 62 as Cadillac’s entry-level series for 1965, was never offered in convertible form, while the convertible De Ville disappeared after 1970, a victim of fading demand.
Convertible sales were evaporating across the industry. Postwar GT cars and the rise of the muscle car era had shifted buyer perceptions of speed and sport from roadsters to closed coupes. Drag racers knew a ragtop meant a heavier frame and a willowy body, neither of which was desirable for flat-out running. Drivers less concerned with racing for pink slips, meanwhile, were increasingly tempted by air conditioning and automated climate control. Worse, there was a new range of federal safety legislation on the horizon, including a new roof crush standard that would essentially outlaw open cars. (Chrysler successfully challenged the latter in federal court.) If Americans weren’t buying them anyway, automakers concluded, why bother?
American Motors dropped out first, offering their last convertible for 1968. Ford and Chrysler were next, dumping all their ragtops except for the pony car lines after 1969; the droptop Plymouth Barracuda and Dodge Challenger would die after 1971, the Ford Mustang convertible two years later. GM offered no convertible versions of its redesigned 1970 Camaro and Firebird, nor of the restyled intermediates introduced in 1973. Buick, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac fielded their last big convertibles in 1975. By 1976, the Eldorado was the last survivor, along with a small handful of imports like the Alfa Romeo Spider.
THE 1976 ELDORADO
The term “land yacht” might well have been coined for this last American convertible. Although the 1971 Eldorado was actually only 0.6 inches (15 mm) longer than the 1970 model, the wheelbase had been stretched 6.3 inches (160 mm), bringing overall length to 221.6 inches (5,629 mm). Curb weight was up about 75 pounds (34 kg), and an Eldorado ragtop now tipped the scales at a full two and a half tons (2,270 kg). After the addition of 5 mph (8 km/h) bumpers (in front for 1973, in back for 1974), the Eldorado grew to 224.1 inches (5,692 mm) and swelled to around 5,400 pounds (2,450 kg) at the curb.
Like its predecessor — and the contemporary Oldsmobile Toronado — the Cadillac Eldorado used front-wheel drive, but its configuration was quite a bit different than the pioneering BMC Mini. Whereas the Mini turned its engine sideways with the transaxle mounted in the sump, the Eldorado and Toronado used longitudinally mounted V8 engines. The torque converter of a highly modified Turbo Hydra-Matic automatic transmission was mounted on the back of the engine, as with a rear-drive car, but the gearbox itself was mounted next to the torque converter, driven by a chain. The gearbox output shaft pointed forward, sending power to a slim planetary differential and then via CV-jointed half-shafts to the front wheels. This unusual arrangement was remarkably compact and it allowed the Eldo and Toronado to share many components with Cadillac and Oldsmobile’s rear-drive cars. (It also effectively eliminated torque steer, an impressive feat given the torquey V8 engines.)
The Eldorado’s front suspension was by torsion bars, while the rear was a beam axle on coil springs, located by trailing links; first-generation Eldos had used single leaf springs with both vertical and horizontal shock absorbers. Rear load-leveling air springs were now a standard feature.
While the spring rates and shocks on the original 1967 Eldorado had been firm by Cadillac standards, allowing fairly sporty handling, the second-generation car sacrificed that firmness for a smooth ride. Indeed, the 1971-1976 Cadillac Eldorado rode like a cloud on clean pavement, but bobbed and rolled on rough surfaces and any hasty change of direction was marked by plowing and squealing tires. Stopping was not a strong point, either. Front disc brakes were standard, and for an extra $211 you could order Cadillac’s “Trackmaster” rear anti-lock braking system, but stopping distances were mediocre and the brakes faded badly even in normal driving. Four-wheel discs, added for 1976, helped somewhat, although the Track Master system was quietly dropped.
Under the long hood was an appropriately gargantuan engine: 8.2 liters (actually 8,194 cc), a full 500 cubic inches. Until quite recently, this held the distinction of being the biggest engine ever offered in a postwar production car.
When the 500 cu. in. version debuted in the 1970 Eldorado, it was rated at a whopping 400 horsepower (298 kW) and 550 lb-ft (745 N-m) of torque, although a drop in compression ratio for 1971 cut the big engine’s output to 365 hp (272 kW) and 535 lb-ft (725 N-m). Alas, these were SAE gross numbers and when Cadillac switched to the SAE net system the following year, the big engine’s rated power tumbled to 235 hp (175 kW) and 385 lb-ft (521 N-m), although it was actually unchanged.
Over the next few years, emissions controls would cut its output to a meager 190 hp (142 kW), absurd for such a large engine. Starting in 1975, buyers could — for a hefty $647 premium — order their Eldorado with Bendix fuel injection instead of a carburetor, boosting the big V8 to 215 hp (160 kW) and a whopping 400 lb-ft (542 N-m) of torque. Motor Trend‘s July 1975 test of a 1975 Cadillac Eldorado coupe with the 190-horsepower engine took 10.9 seconds to reach 60 mph (97 km/h), adequate but not impressive. As for gas mileage, a heavy right foot in traffic could easily drop it below 10 mpg (23.5 L/100 km), although a minor consolation was that the engine no longer required premium fuel.
Despite the thirst and a 1973 OPEC oil embargo that led to widespread gasoline shortages, Cadillac managed to move more than 40,000 Eldorados a year through most of the seventies, excellent for such an expensive car. The convertible almost never accounted for more than about a quarter of production, but when Cadillac announced that the 1976 convertible would be the last, sales surged, eventually reaching 14,000 units.
The last 2,000 1976 Eldorado convertibles built were marketed as limited editions, while the final 200 were special “Bicentennial Editions,” painted white with red and blue pin-striping. With all convertibles fast disappearing, there was a burst of speculator frenzy that briefly pushed selling prices well above the $12,000 MSRP.
The second-generation FWD Eldorado soldiered on until 1978, losing the big engine in favor of a new 425 cu. in. (6,970 cc) V8. The Eldorado was redesigned and downsized for 1979, losing more than half a ton of weight in the process, but the convertible did not return — at least at first.
As it happened, the 1976 Eldorado was not the end of the road for the convertible after all. When Lee Iaccoca joined Chrysler in 1979, he discovered that the rollover standards Detroit had feared had actually been rescinded without going into effect, enabling Chrysler to reintroduce convertible models with great fanfare in 1982.
In 1984, Cadillac offered a new Eldorado convertible, built by an outside contractor and carrying an eye-opening $31,286 sticker price. Aside from dismaying collectors who’d though their ’76s would really be the last, the revived Eldorado ragtop didn’t sell very well and it was dropped after 1985.
Convertibles have become more sophisticated now, with the current trend to elaborate power-operated hardtops, but the appetite for open air never really went away. Big ragtop land yachts like the Eldorado convertible, however, seem to be gone for good, relics of an era we’re not likely to see again.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Our sources for this article included the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Encyclopedia of American Cars: Over 65 Years of Automotive History (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 1996); John Barach’s Cadillac History website, Motor Era, June 2002, www.motorera. com/ cadillac/index.htm, accessed 2 April 2007; David Knowles, MG: The Untold Story (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); “Cadillac Eldorado – Bicentennial Edition,” www.bicentennialeldorado.com, accessed 10 August 2010; 49 CFR § 571.216a (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 216a; Roof crush resistance); John Gunnell, ed., Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946-1975, rev. 4th ed. (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2002); and John Lamm, “King of the Hill: Eldo-Mark III Revisited,” Motor Trend July 1971, “King of the Hill: Cadillac Eldorado vs. Lincoln Continental Mark IV,” Motor Trend July 1972, and “The King of the Hill: Mark IV vs. Eldorado,”Motor Trend August 1973; “Top Luxury for Pennies…” Road Test May 1972; Eric Dahlquist, “Cadillac Eldorado: The King, Revisited,” Motor Trend October 1972; and John Lamm and Jim Brokaw, “The King’s Ransom Road Test,” Motor Trend July 1975, all of which are reprinted in Cadillac Eldorado Performance Portfolio 1967-1978, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 2000).